Cocaine: US policing strategies fuel drug trade increases


Traffickers and cops are caught up in a complex adaptive system that does nothing to reduce imports or usage. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Big cocaine seizures, in this case in the Dominican Republic in 2018, always make headlines, but they do little to stem the flow of the drug into the US.

ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images

The so-called war on drugs in the United States has been a failure, with the added consequence that five decades of law enforcement efforts have forced drug traffickers to become more effective and efficient in distributing their wares.

This frank assessment, by a group of researchers from several US universities, with additional input from Anthony Bebbington, from Australia’s University of Melbourne, is included in a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This work demonstrates that supply-side counter-drug strategies alone are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, intensifying the trafficking problem,” says Nicholas Magliocca, from the University of Alabama, the paper’s lead author.

“These networks have demonstrated their ability to adapt to interdiction efforts, identifying and exploiting new trafficking routes in response.”

The researchers say the central contribution of their paper is the development of a geographically detailed model called NarcoLogic, which aims to anticipate the decision-making processes of narco-traffickers at both the local and network levels, and how they respond to law enforcement efforts.

NarcoLogic is based on information from the Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB), the principal information resource used by US law enforcement agencies and policy forums.

The CCDB, the researchers write, includes estimates that “are the best available authoritative source for estimating known illicit drug flow through the ‘transit zone’,” which includes Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Using NarcoLogic, the researchers tested their theory that the spread and continued success of narco-trafficking is not the fault of poor law enforcement or because the drug smugglers are criminal masterminds, but rather because both groups are part of a complex adaptive system.

“In other words, interdiction ineffectiveness in not the result of either interdiction or traffickers, but rather their interaction over many years,” the paper says.

The researchers tested this hypothesis by comparing NarcoLogic’s predictions of where, when, and how cocaine shipments were trafficked between 2000 and 2014, against actual patterns of cocaine flows recorded in CCDB.

The paper examines traditional and current law enforcement practices, which are designed primarily to seize or disrupt cocaine shipments in the transit zone between South American sources and US markets.

The core US drugs policy and national security strategy involves $4.7 billion – 18% of total federal drug control spending – allocated to interdiction every fiscal year. It includes tactics such as drug crop eradication and transit zone interdiction, and strives to create scarcity, increase the operating costs of drug trade organisations, and ultimately raise retail prices to deter drug abuse in the US.

“However, the US government’s own assessments have long showed that interdiction has at best only an ephemeral impact on retail prices and supply,” the researchers conclude.

“In fact, wholesale cocaine prices in the US have dropped significantly since 1980, deaths from cocaine overdose are rising, and the dismal rate at which counter-drug forces intercept cocaine shipments is well documented.

“Despite these failures, interdiction budgets increased in 2018 and 2019, signalling that interdiction continues to be a key part of US counter-drug strategy.”

The paper further documents how interdiction has been linked to the unintended spread and fragmentation of existing trafficking routes, known as the “balloon and cockroach effects”, into many new locations.

As a result, the western hemisphere transit zone grew from two million to seven million square miles (about five to 18 million square kilometres) between 1996 and 2017, making it more difficult and costly for law enforcement to track and disrupt trafficking networks.

“This expansion has also brought a litany of collateral damages,” the researchers write.

“Locations through which drugs are smuggled experience narco-fueled violence and corruption, infusion of unparalleled amounts of cash and weapons, dispossession and seizure of land from rural communities, and extensive and rapid environmental destruction.”

Magliocca adds: “This model gives us the tools to look within the transit zone to see the consequences of interdiction. It provides a virtual laboratory for exploring alternative interdiction strategies and scenarios to understand the unintended consequences over space and time.

“The adaptive responses of narco-traffickers within the transit zone, particularly spatial adjustments, must be understood if we are to move beyond reactive counterdrug interdiction strategies.”

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1812459116
  2. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/ondcp/transit-zone-operations
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